Wednesday 23 December 2009

A Dirty Shame (2004)

Director: John Waters
Stars: Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair and Chris Isaak
The only thing wrong with John Waters movies is that he doesn't make anywhere near enough of them. This is the last film he directed and it's five years old. Before that you have to go back another four years to the truly joyous Cecil B DeMented. We really could do with more than two or three movies a decade from him, however memorable they all are. As always this one is about the difference between the scary weird people in Baltimore and the even scarier normal folks in Baltimore, here called neuters. What we get though is the most sexed up Waters film since, well ever. This one's all about sex from moment one and it works its way through what may be every single sexual innuendo in the book, though just in case you're thinking this is a porn movie there is no actual sex in this entire film.

We're in the Harford Road area of Baltimore which is apparently becoming a hotbed of perverse activity, so much so that Big Ethel at the Parkwood Park & Pay is organising a fight back by holding a decency rally. Her daughter Sylvia Stickles, who works at the store, would appear to be her number one disciple, given that she begins the film saying no in no uncertain terms to her husband Vaughn, but she runs out of gas in the middle of the road and gets a concussion from a passerby. Concussion in this film is the quickest route to sex addiction and if you can't get past that cinematic excuse then this isn't the film for you. Then again, if you can't get past that cinematic excuse then why are you watching a John Waters movie? Good grief, you're living dangerously!

It doesn't take long to meet the perversion you might expect from Waters and I don't just mean the girlie magazines Vaughn turns to when he doesn't get any from his wife. Their daughter Caprice now goes by Ursula Udders, given the insane breast enhancement surgery she's had, though she's now under house arrest after her third conviction for independent exposure. As Sylvia drives down Harford Road and Vaughn walks the same route, we meet neighbours showing their cleavage, old smooching couples, men taking out the garbage in their underwear. And bears. We have bears, who you have to see to believe. Grrrr! At the Parkwood Park & Pay the mailman reads leg fetish magazines, the janitor has a thing for dirt and even Ricki Lake is on the TV talking about porn in America. Poor Old Ethel can't keep away from sex, however much she tries.

There is a story in here behind the neverending perversions and it all wraps around Johnny Knoxville, who is right there on the scene when Sylvia gets her concussion. He's Ray Ray and he's driving up in his Ray Ray's Service Center truck while getting some oral action from Loose Linda, a nymphomaniac Baltimore policewoman. He explains to Sylvia how it all works, how sex addicts are everywhere and how soon the Harford Road area will be theirs. He makes his point by going down on her and he proves his power by bringing a CGI squirrel back to life with a kiss. He's a sexual healer and he needs Sylvia because only she can invent a new sexual act that nobody has ever done before. Yeah, not your usual story, huh, even for John Waters. A concussion is a terrible thing to waste, that's the key.

I'm really not sure what to think of this one, but I think I feel a little cheated. John Waters made his name through the power of shock, going beyond any boundary of taste he could find and rubbing our noses in it. OK, maybe that's not the best choice of phrase given what Divine used to get up to, but you get the picture. Films like Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living are amazing but they're absolutely not for everyone. It takes a very particular taste to get through these low budget forays into the world of Baltimore trash. When Waters went mainstream he kept a subversive edge but nixed the shock factor, shocking us more with the cast list. Films like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom are joyously twisted but utterly accessible to mainstream audiences. Cecil B Demented brought that into the 21st century but this one doesn't really follow it. For all that it's about sex from beginning to end, it's pretty tame stuff.

I loved the film because I'm so in tune with the patented John Waters sense of humour and A Dirty Shame is full of it, but I really can't say that it's likely to go down as one of his best, pun not intended but what the hey. It has less outsider celebrities than usual, though Mink Stole is back as always, Patty Hearst gets another part and there's even a very unexpected cameo from David Hasselhoff. Usually a John Waters film has a cast full of people like that, but three will have to do here, or four if you want to count Johnny Knoxville. Strange perversions are everywhere but none of them feel particularly perverted, even the really perverted ones or the ones I hadn't heard of before like sploshing.

In fact this is a film about perversion that you could watch with your parents, sort of like a naughty Disney movie, especially in the overdubbed Neuter version that we watched on the Sundance Channel with many of the ruder words turned into something a little less rude. Let's just say that one character may be called Fat Freak Frank in the R rated version, but that isn't really his name in the unrated version that also runs five minutes longer. A quick look at the Quotes page on IMDb shows me what a lot of the real dialogue is, most of which I'd already worked out. Perhaps this is the real dirty shame of the title. When the filmmakers asked the MPAA what they'd have to cut to get rated R, they were told that if everything the MPAA objected to was cut the movie would be only ten minutes long. The thing is that that's what it feels like.

It's really nothing much to write home about, though it could easily be turned into about a thousand funny YouTube clips. It's certainly the least John Waters film I've seen thus far, and excepting his early short films I'm only missing 1998's Pecker. This one did introduce me to the word 'Viagravated' though. That's something, at least.

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